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What is it to be a Human Knower?

Jan Derry wants to know what it is to know.

What is it to be a human knower? This is the question the philosopher Robert Brandom asks in his investigation into the nature of language and of the social practices which distinguish us as creatures of intellect. I will consider his answer to this question.

This question is crucial for the way we educate our children, and a series of other questions follow from it: What is the nature of our contact with the world? To what extent can intellect be developed? What circumstances or approaches are necessary for the intellect’s development? What is it that learners need to know? What should be taught in the curriculum? There is also what is known as the learning paradox: How is it possible for new and more complex learning to develop out of less complex learning? These questions are particularly urgent in a period where education is proclaimed as one of the core aims of governments.

Anti-Representing Brandom

What can philosophy tell us about education? Well, philosophy is supposed to clarify claims and make things explicit; but there is also a convergence of interest between philosophers and teachers. Educationalists aim to open minds to the world, and in so doing, develop these minds. In pursuing this end, education is concerned with precisely those matters which concern philosophers in areas such as epistemology or philosophy of mind. Questions about the nature of knowledge, mind and understanding, involve presuppositions and assumptions which can be particularly important for the philosophy of education. The concerns of psychologists, educationalists and teachers involve definite positions on these issues, whether explicit or implicit, and these positions play a part in educational theory, research and practice. So contemporary philosophical work in these areas, particularly concerning the relationship between mind and world and the embodiment of mind, can have important implications for the development of both theory and practice in education. It’s difficult when considering the specifically teaching-related aspects of education not to take an interest in fundamental philosophical issues, whether it be the way we acquire concepts, the relationship between language and thought, or David Bakhurst’s argument that human beings owe their distinctive psychological powers to cumulative cultural evolution – that is, the process through which “each generation inherits the collective cognitive achievements of previous generations, through cultural rather than biological transmission.”

The science of learning (pedagogy) is at the heart of education – how is it that learners may come to grasp difficult and complex ideas, for example? How might they change their perspectives on the world? The computer metaphor of the human mind simply will not do. No one would dispute that the human mind develops: the issues at stake are to what extent and in what way. What is involved in the development of minds? Bringing this question centre-stage was the achievement of Jean Piaget’s genetic epistemology – the study of how knowledge develops in humans. Piaget opened the way for thinking in developmental terms about the higher capacities of the mind: the ability to put context aside and think in an abstract way. His contemporary, the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, took the idea of the development of intellect further, seeing the development of higher mental functions such as memory, attention, perception and abstraction as inextricably connected to our social being.

The work that may be brought to bear on the development of the intellect is vast, ranging from neuroscience to theories of the extended mind involving situated or augmented cognition, and disputes add to the richness of the area. One illustration of the richness of this vein is the work of Robert Brandom, an American philosopher who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh. Brandom has claimed that what he calls the representationalist paradigm, that is, that awareness is understood in representational terms, has reigned supreme since Descartes. Brandom boldly argues that to understand ourselves as knowers we need to reverse this conventional order of explanation, to instead prioritise inference over representation. This reversed position itself flows from a rich vein of work on the nature of language. But what might this reversal mean in the realm of education?

A simple idea, well explored in philosophical literature yet also common in our everyday way of thinking, provides a clue: words are names for objects, so words represent objects. Without going into the complexity of what we could understand by ‘representation’, let us consider how this way of thinking might figure in the practice of teaching. A teacher may approach meaning in terms of a relation between a representation and the thing it represents, and this may be supported by additional clarifications. But using Robert Brandom’s work we can approach the matter of meaning differently. Even if it is the case that the meaning of the word is tightly connected with its referent, how this connection arises– that it is developmental and ongoing – is a matter of pedagogical importance.

Understanding the forging of the connection between words and their meanings involves reversing the conceptual framework in which we usually think about learning. A common assumption about learning something is that the matter to be learnt should be broken down into smaller, more manageable bits, so that learners can proceed from the simple to complex. However this assumption is grounded in what Jerome Bruner calls ‘folk psychology’, and it will not stand up to the type of close investigation that Brandom undertakes. If Brandom is right, a whole set of new items are on the agenda.

So what happens if we reverse our conventional account of meaning and take up Brandom’s prioritisation of inference over representation? For instance, what does it mean to say that we access the correct representation by an ability to inhabit the space of inferential relations that constitute that representation? These are not easy ideas. But is the easier, common view really the way that infants learn the names for things? Do they really learn what objects are by starting with simple ideas, then combining them gradually into ones of greater complexity? Not according to Vygotsky.

Reasons and Inferences

Vygotsky argues that a word presupposes a generalisation which necessarily involves an act of thought. In a child’s language words are the beginnings of generalisations and their meaning is located in practices which constitute that meaning. So a child can begin to operate with a sophisticated concept when the concept is in use in the adult sphere of activity with which the child has contact.

By using the word in the right place at the right time, although the child may not have grasped the full meaning (similarly for adults beginning to grasp the meaning of unfamiliar words) the child is in the process of developing full meaning due to his involvement in the system of usage which constitutes the word meaning. Thus we can operate with terms before fully understanding their meaning. Children may successfully use quite sophisticated words/concepts before fully grasping or using similar simple words.

To shed a little light on these matters we can return to Brandom’s question. What do we need to be able to do to be a knower? For Brandom this means: What is it to be capable of judgment, rather than of merely mechanical responses to stimuli?

For Brandom, the distinguishing feature of a thinking being is its responsiveness to reasons rather than simply to causes. Responding differentially to physical stimuli is characteristic of a machine or a parrot; but it does not characterise thinking beings. A mechanical alarm may be far more effective than human beings in perceiving a fire and sounding the alert. But when a human being shouts “fire!” he or she is always doing more than simply making a warning noise. When a child of five (as opposed to a much younger child, whose uttered sounds are only just beginning to operate as language) shouts “fire!” he or she knows the implications. He or she appreciates the consequences of the exclamation “fire!” and what follows from such an utterance.

Brandom uses this example to illustrate his claim that human beings act and communicate inferentially. He applies an insight from the philosopher Wilfrid Sellars, about what distinguishes the human form of knowing from the type of ‘knowing’ we might ascribe to a machine. Knowing for a human being consists not merelyin expressing a response, but in being aware of what follows from it. In other words, it involves knowing the implications, or what Brandom calls the “giving and asking of reasons.” As Brandom puts it, “even non-inferential reports must be inferentially articulated” and this point is crucial to any understanding of the human intellect.

To return to a fire alarm perceiving a fire. This is already an anthropomorphism which Brandom takes care to avoid. He talks of machines “responding differentially to stimuli,” by which he means they respond mechanically. The use of the phrase ‘responding differentially’ in place of ‘perceiving’ or ‘knowing’ is of crucial importance, for it introduces a distinction hidden by anthropomorphic language. The stimulus in this case – the fire – is the cause of the response; whereas in the case of the human being who sounds the alarm, the fire is the reason for their response. The human perceives the fire as fire; that is to say, unlike a machine, a human has a concept of fire as part of a system of concepts. For Brandom, making a report as a human being is not ‘responding differentially’ – it involves inferring rather than merely representing.

Fire may be a trivial example, but in allowing a clear distinction between human and mechanical responses, it opens the way to recognizing how human knowledge differs profoundly from the ‘knowledge’ of even the most sophisticated machines. This suggests in the most compelling terms that any educational project which draws its inspiration from the programming of computers rather than from specifically human qualities of mind is profoundly inadequate. This is just one connection in which branches of philosophy traditionally having little to do with education may turn out to be of decisive importance.

© Dr Jan Derry 2007

Jan Derry is Lecturer in Philosophy of Education at the Institute of Education, University of London. She is currently writing a book on Vygotsky and Philosophy.


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